By Peter Roussos, MFT

“Marriage” is one of the most rewarding, yet challenging experiences that human beings can have. When I use the term “marriage” I am talking about a committed emotional and sexual relationship between two people, heterosexual or gay, legally married or not. By its very nature, marriage and the experience of loving presents people with a never-ending series of growth opportunities. One of the fundamental forces of a committed relationship is to challenge people to grow and mature, and to develop an ever-increasing ability to tolerate intimacy.

Our marriages are always putting opportunities for growth in front of us. Whether or not we choose to do the work necessary for growth is another issue and is by no means guaranteed. An unhappy marriage is often a product of stalled growth and a limited tolerance for intimacy by the partners. Many committed relationshipsend, and divorces occur, well before the couple has done enough growth work to really know what their potential is as a couple and what their intimacy tolerance is as individuals

This is not to say that divorce is “wrong”. There are very healthy reasons to divorce and healthy ways to do it, but premature divorce is tragic, even more so when children are involved. By not facing the challenges in our relationships that lead to personal growth, we deny ourselves not only opportunities to realize the potential between our partner and ourselves, butmore importantly we deny ourselves opportunities to develop our own individual capacity for intimacy. By not doing the growth work, people often move from one unhappy relationship to another unhappy relationship with intimacy stalled all along the way.

There are many stereotypical ideas about what “intimacy” is. Many people believe that intimacy is primarily about sex. Others believe that intimacy should always be comfortable and pleasant. Many view intimacy as something that women are capable of and men are destined to struggle with. All of these views of intimacy limit people in their ability to see the tremendous growth potential that being in a committed relationship provides.

Mature intimacy is a process of self-definition and self-revelation to others. Intimacy also requires a willingness to “see” and understand our partners for who they really are. With the requisite honesty, intimacy will often be uncomfortable, and will always be deeply meaningful.

Our level of “differentiation” is what determines our capacity and tolerance for intimacy. 

Differentiation is a psychological process that determines how we function in relationship to ourselves and to other people. Murray Bowen, M.D. identified and developed the concept of differentiation. David Schnarch, Ph.D. has further developed and applied Bowen’s differentiation theory. The following description of differentiation comes from the work of David Schnarch, Ph.D.

1) Our level of differentiation determines how well we are able to self-validate (maintain our own sense of healthy self-esteem). At higher levels of differentiation, our sense of self-esteem is not based on how other people think, feel or behave towards us.

2) Another element of differentiation is our ability to self-soothe (manage our emotions in healthy and effective ways) when we experience the emotions of other people. At higher levels of differentiation, we are better able to maintain our composure (not over react or withdraw), and stay engaged when others are expressing their emotions to us. We are able to stay emotionally connected even when we are uncomfortable with, or don’t like, what someone else is expressing to us.

3) Increasing our level of differentiation is a growth process. Another aspect of differentiation is the willingness to tolerate discomfort for growth. Personal growth and intimacy often involves conflict, anxiety, and uncomfortable thoughts and feelings. Increasing our tolerance for these kinds of discomforts in ourselves, and in others, increases our capacity for growth and intimacy. By pushing ourselves to do things that we find difficult (for example, being assertive with someone even if we think there may be disagreement and conflict) we learn new skills and we grow.

4) Our level of differentiation determines our ability to define and express our sense of identity (our sense of who we are, what we think, what we feel, and what we want) and to be receptive to others defining and expressing themselves to us. The ability to be assertive and maintain healthy boundaries (being able to set limits with others; being able to say “no” to others) is part of the differentiation process.

5) Our level of differentiation determines how well we are able to maintain and protect our sense of personal integrity (our moral and ethical beliefs). At lower levels of differentiation, we are more likely to sacrifice our integrity to avoid the anxiety and tension of disagreement and conflict, and to engage in destructive behaviors such as addictions, infidelity, deceit and other unhealthy forms of self-soothing.

These 5 elements of differentiation are essential parts of intimate relational functioning. Personal growth in these areas increases our tolerance for intimacy. Increased intimacy tolerance leads to a healthier sense of self and a healthier sense of connection to others.

David Schnarch, Ph.D. refers to marriage as “a people growing machine”. This is a wonderful description of the natural processes of marriage, and how marriage is constantly presenting us with opportunities to increase our level of differentiation and thereby increase our tolerance for intimacy.

A healthy, dynamic relationship is often not easy, but the most meaningful things in life rarely are. Our marriages truly are inviting us to grow.